Nation, Tribune journalists debate media’s role

By Nicole Burgoyne

Loud heckling punctuated an already impassioned debate of the current media’s timidity regarding government last night, with one delegate even discussing journalists’ fears of being labeled un-American.

Delegates from The Nation and the Chicago Tribune duked out the role of the media in democracy at a panel entitled “Media and the Public Interest: Debating the Responsibility of the Press in a Democratic Society.” Topics ranged from balancing national security and public rights to the impact of the internet and media company conglomeration. Dean of Humanities Danielle Allen moderated.

Dan Michaeli, third-year in the College and president of the Chicago Society, and second-year in the College Tyler Zoanni, the event’s coordinator, gave introductions. Zoanni introduced Allen, who provided her own assessment of the importance of the issues at hand, referring to Federalist Paper 10 for guidance. The debate opened with a six-minute prepared speech by each of the delegates followed by moderated conversation with audience questions.

James Warren, deputy managing editor of the Tribune spoke first, criticizing the current state of the media but arguing that America still leads in freedom of the press. He also described the idea of a media “monolith” as “dubious and laughable.”

“American media are not members of the same club; we are independent,” Warren said.

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, followed with an account of the responsibilities of the press in a democracy, harkening back to the writings of the Founding Fathers and the conception of the media as an “essential check and balance on executive excess, especially during war.”

Nichols quoted James Madison, adding that the absence of a diverse media would cause “degeneration into tragedy, farce, or, worse, both.” Nichols argued that America has reached the outcome feared—that “Madison’s moment” has arrived.

David D. Hiller—president, publisher, and CEO of the Tribune—defended his paper’s independence from the government, citing the Tribune’s history as an “equal-opportunity discomforter.” He emphasized that accessibility to free news on the internet is pressuring newspaper business models.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor-in-chief of the Nation, spoke at length over a blurring between entertainment and news. She also said that there exists a “radical post-modern idea” that “there is no real truth.” Vanden Heuvel criticized what she called the Bush administration’s “assault on truth,” citing an unprecedented rollback of information provided to the press.

Following the speakers’ statements, Allen posed questions regarding opposing views of media challenges. The conversation moved on to include the pros and cons of media conglomeration and audience-prompted topics such as unreported civilian dissent and the role of blogs. The debate over sparse coverage of some events elicited spirited—both approving and critical—audience response.

The Chicago Tribune is a major daily newspaper lauded by Nichols for its “robust conservatism [in its editorials] in a time of neoconservative drift,” as opposed to the “crooks, conners, and thieves who currently use the name.” Nichols also lauded the Tribune for its expose journalism on such issues as the death penalty, and Warren reiterated the Tribune’s commitment as a government watchdog.

The Nation is a weekly news and opinion magazine. Vanden Heuvel is clear about her publication’s stance, citing its position as an independent news sources amidst multimedia conglomerations. She argued that because of the “bottom-line of distant shareholders…constricting is the consensus” at other media companies.

She spoke about “spreading [The Nation’s] ideals.” She earlier said, “Accuracy is not a virtue, it is a demand.” She also mentioned that the media community has a “shared interest in democracy, and in order to have a democracy, you need healthy and informed debate,” calling on the media to provide the means for discussion and argument.

Vanden Heuvel expressed a particular interest in speaking to the editors and journalists of the University of Chicago community because she is committed to young writers. Hiller similarly characterized the undergraduate community as the future producers and consumers of media, and thus worthy of attention.

The event originated as an outreach from The Nation, and the Tribune was contacted by the Chicago Society as a counterpoint. Event coordinator Tyler Zoanni requested suggestions for a “conservative-leaning” reporter from Hiller, who later volunteered with Warren.